China Trade by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"A bright sunny day in Chinatown brings everybody out, even in the cold. [...] [The] music came from the words they spoke: the Cantonese and English I understand, the Mandarin and Fukienese and Spanish and Korean that I don't. The percussion was their footsteps slapping and tapping the pavement in syncopated rhythm."
Having just read S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night, the eighth novel in her Chin-Smith series and having liked it a lot, I was curious about the earlier books in the series. China Trade (1994) is the first installment and - while an entertaining read - it is otherwise completely unremarkable, quite unlike Winter which was the deserved winner of several major mystery/crime drama awards.
Lydia Chin (Ling Wan-ju, really), a young P.I., is hired by her friend, a member of a Chinese community organization, to investigate the theft of two crates of collectible porcelains that were prepared for an exhibition. Naturally, Lydia enlists the help of Bill Smith, another P.I. who is her frequent collaborator and aspiring boyfriend. Right at the beginning of the investigation, they learn about the murder of a young Chinese man with possible connections to the case. Lydia is severely beaten up: members of the Golden Dragons gang want to scare her off the case. In fact, two competing gangs are involved in the plot as well as the staff of a local museum, several art collectors and importers, and rich donors. Another murder occurs and the provenance of the porcelains (the use of the word "provenance" is sort of a running joke) may be the key to the solution.
The elegantly structured criminal plot progresses fast and the obligatory (sigh!) "twists and turns" stretch the limits of believability but luckily do not rise to the idiocy level. In the later part of the plot Lydia and Bill arrange a contract on themselves: the implausible but audacious device is used with some skill. This is quite a well-written novel that does not much rely on padding: as many as 200 of its 260 pages are really needed - a good score!
The colorful portrayal of New York's Chinatown enlivens the novel and the continuous banter between Lydia and Bill provides a counterpoint to the criminal line of the plot. Readers who watch sitcoms may enjoy the repartees: most of them are as inane as the ones on TV but a few are actually witty. Of course, the uncertainty about the actual nature (and the future) of Lydia - Bill relationship provides a sort of backbone for the whole "detective and the sidekick" template: the novelty here is that both PIs are on equal footing.
Alas, clichés abound. Instead of the usual "the hero leaps over tall buildings in a single bound" cliché, we have Mr. Gao, a wise and all-powerful Chinatown patriarch, who could change the trajectory of the moon, if requested, and quote several Chinese proverbs in the meantime. Yet despite the silly banter, the implausibilities, and the clichés, the novel somehow did not manage to irritate me too much. Good writing, I guess, is the secret.
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